To fix health care, start by making us less sick

Canada's health-care system focuses heavily on how we help sick people live with their conditions or get better, say Heart and Stroke Foundation CEO Yves Savoie and Community Food Centres Canada CEO Nick Saul — but we spend very little time talking about preventing people from getting sick in the first place.

Let's change a food system that drives Canadians to doctors and hospitals

The food we eat is actually feeding our health-care system, say Yves Savoie and Nick Saul, because it is far too often high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, as well as a host of additives and emulsifiers. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

In any election in Canada, health care will be a major topic. National pharmacare promises to be a leading one in this year's federal campaign.

But when we say "health-care" system what we really mean is our "sick-care" system — how we help sick people live with their conditions and/or get better. We spend very little time talking about what we need to do to help prevent people from getting sick in the first place.

One of the leading causes of sickness is sitting on our plates — or, more often, in greasy bags, foam containers and boxes from the freezer. The food we eat is feeding our health-care system because far too often it is high in saturated fat, salt and/or sugar, as well as a host of additives and emulsifiers. All ingredients that are common in ultra-processed foods.

As a result, Canadians are getting sicker at unprecedented and crisis level rates.

This has happened because we have created a food environment that encourages companies to create, heavily market and profit greatly from having Canadians drink and eat foods with too many things that are not good for us.

The companies have done a great job at this, thanks to social media and advertising campaigns directly targeted at children, the use of cartoon characters and other attractive packaging, and a complicated and confusing system of nutritional information labels that does little to educate Canadians about their best food choices.

It's a remarkable system. Companies making and selling these foods generate huge profits while taxpayers are left with the multi-billion dollar costs to treat the resulting conditions associated with diet-related disease, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

The situation continues to get worse every year, and without action it will devour our ability to cope through our health-care system. We need to act now.

Canada's new food guide places a stronger emphasis on fruits and vegetables and encourages more whole grain foods and plant-based proteins. It's one of the ways the federal government is working to get Canadians eating better. (Health Canada )

The federal government has been working to change this paradigm over the past few years with its Healthy Eating Strategy, a multi-pronged Health Canada initiative of much-needed rules and programs to help Canadians to eat better. Two elements of this strategy have been completed, an excellent revised Canada's Food Guide and a ban on heart-clogging artificial trans fats.

Industry has slowed progress

On other fronts, progress has been too slow because industry has been fighting it at every turn. Their most recent and successful effort was to convince the Senate to block legislation approved by the House of Commons to prohibit the advertising of food and beverages to Canadian children. Industry also managed to stop the completion of proposed front-of-package nutrition labelling initiative, which aimed to make it easier for Canadians to make healthy choices.

Another key healthy eating tactic that has yet to be tried here but you can bet industry is going to fight tooth and nail is a levy on sugary drinks. Implemented successfully in numerous jurisdictions around the world, soda levies can generate money to support a wide range of healthy eating initiatives aimed at improved public health.

Taxation has proven to be an effective tool to reduce consumption, as we have seen with tobacco.

We can and must do more to support healthy eating, particularly with low-income Canadians who are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases because they simply can't afford a healthy diet. The medical profession could encourage doctors to write prescriptions for patients, not for drugs but for fruits and vegetables – to drive home the message that that's where health begins.

Citizens need to continue to put pressure on food manufacturers and retailers to prioritize health in their products. (Shutterstock)

We could also change Canada's unenviable position of being one of the few industrialized countries without a national school nutrition program.

While citizens need to continue to put pressure on food manufacturers and retailers to prioritize health in their products, it's imperative that we also ask our politicians — including the ones who are seeking election this fall — to stand up to industry and take the actions needed, including implementing in full Canada's Healthy Eating Strategy, to create healthier food environments.

The bad food Canadians eat costs us billions in health care every year. Unless we act decisively, the cost will continue to rise, both in terms of health-care dollars and lives made sicker and shorter.

By putting the well-being of Canadians first — and making a preventative approach to health a ballot box issue — we can create the necessary conditions for us all to eat our way to better health and health care.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.


Yves Savoie is CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Nick Saul is CEO of Community Food Centres Canada.


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